Celebrant’s Flame: Daniel Berrigan in Memory and Reflection

Thu, 08/19/2021 - 6:45pm

Daniel Berrigan changed people’s lives. He changed the life of Bill Wylie-Kellermann, author of “Celebrant’s Flame: Daniel Berrigan in Memory and Reflection” (2021).
The two came to know each other first in 1972, when Wylie-Kellermann was a student of Dan’s at Union Seminary in New York. Their friendship continued until Dan’s death in 2016. In truth, their friendship continues and expands as it is shared with readers through this book, a compendium of Dan’s own words and deeds, as well as letters, notes, journal entries, poems, articles, and speeches written to or about him by a network of colleagues, students, friends, and family members —all brought to light by Wylie-Kellerman’s insightful commentary.

Daniel Berrigan’s name will be forever connected to Block Island, because it was here that the charismatic, world-famous, Jesuit priest was captured by the FBI to be jailed for destroying draft records for the Viet Nam War. He had been tried, convicted and sentenced, but chose not to surrender for imprisonment. Instead, he disappeared for five months, reappearing at a few public gatherings before coming to rest briefly at the home of his friends William Stringfellow and Anthony Towne on Spring Street, Block Island. (After reading this section of the book, apple pie will take on special significance for you.)

When Dan returned to Block Island after two years in Danbury Prison, Stringfellow and Towne built a small cottage for him overlooking the sea. Details of his life there and of his hospitality exemplify his sense of humor, kindness, generosity, culinary, and artistic gifts, as well as his love of nature and Block Island.
If topics and language theological are not your usual fare, read on anyway. You will find “words of wisdom” that do not require training in a seminary to be understood.
The foreword by Frida Berrigan, Dan’s niece, will point you in the right direction: “Bill wrote in the crucible of the conjoined pandemic of coronavirus and white racism and hatred unmasked. In this strange time, the world shrank to four walls and the family unit, but it got
a heck of a lot louder and harsher and many of us were tempted — are tempted — to just pull up the covers and give in to despair. Into that breach, into that tear in our fabric of human connections, comes this timeless chronicle of gentleness, wisdom, and friendship.”

An anecdote from early in the author’s relationship with Dan seems to sum it all up: “...he asked a group of us, seminarians then his students, why we hadn’t issued a public statement supporting him [for a controversial speech he had given.] Honestly, it never even
occurred to us that we had the agency to weigh in publicly on such a stage... Your voice matters. Speak up. Never too late to learn,” writes the author.
The letter from Jim Reale, who has long-time connections to Block Island, will provide you with a beautifully written mini-autobiography that tells how Dan affected Jim’s life. He says of Dan, “He wasn’t a recruiter for any cause, however needed or noble. Nor was he fixed on making his purpose your purpose...he was a pied piper for peace and disarmament. You either heard his music or not. It was more his conviction rather than any effort to convince you that created a turning of one’s life in a direction other than self.”
Wylie-Kellermann writes of Dan, “Nearly everything he did was intended to recognize and reveal the steadfast love beneath all reality.”

And the afterword, by Kateri Boucher, associate editor for Geez magazine and a community member in Detroit’s Catholic Worker house, allows those who never met (or even read) Dan to understand his impact. She writes, “I don’t necessarily feel called to model my life after Dan’s specific actions. But I find resonance with the questions he relentlessly asked through his life, knowing that the answers of my generation will be — in fact, need to be — different than his own.”
Bill Wylie-Kellermann, has brought this album of remembrance together for us, blending his light with Dan’s and that of other peace-seekers, to illuminate our way.

He writes, “...in the face of our deepening nuclear crisis, or the slower incineration of the planet, or the violent re-emergence of long-standing white supremacy, or the hundreds of thousands of COVID deaths and its structured impact on low-income people,” ask, “What am I to do?” Then, he encourages, courageously, do it.

“Celebrant’s Flame: Daniel Berrigan in Memory and Reflection” is available at Island Bound Bookstore, at the Island Free Library, and from Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers.

Author Bill Wylie-Kellermann will be on Block Island for a discussion and book-signing at the BI Historical Society on August 26.